Coca Production, Deforestation and Climate Change

Posted on March 25th, 2010 by Jason James

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By Elisa Botero*

Colombia is the number one cocaine producer in the world. Hundreds of hectares of coca bush, the main component of cocaine, are planted each year to produce this popular recreational drug, consumed mainly in Europe and North America.  The local social, economic and environmental impacts of illicit drug production have been discussed in detail in numerous academic studies and governmental reports.[i] Colombia’s coca bush cultivation, however, has a subtler, insidious global effect: it significantly contributes to climate change as tropical rainforests, natural carbon sinks, are destroyed to give way to illicit crops.

Through a process known as biosequestration, forests capture and store CO2. Based on IPCC methodologies and data, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates an average carbon stock of 194.6 tons per hectare (tons/ha) in South American forests.[ii] Deforestation furthers global climate change by releasing the CO2 sequestered in living biomass. Studies indicate tropical deforestation amounts to about a fifth of global CO2 emissions,[iii] and hence avoiding it should be a center of the efforts to reduce anthropogenic emissions.[iv]

One of the major drivers of deforestation in Colombia is coca bush cultivation. Colombia has more than 60 million hectares of forest, which account for 58.5% of its land area.[v] In terms of area of primary (old-growth) forest the country ranks 6th in the world with more than 53 million hectares. From 2000 to 2005, Colombia lost on average 47 thousand hectares of forests each year, totaling 235 thousand hectares in a five year period.[vi]

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), by the end of 2008, Colombia had 81 thousand hectares of coca bush crops.[vii] However, there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the number of hectares involved. The U.S government, which also maintains statistics on illicit crops, reported 119 thousand hectares of coca plantations in 2008, 46% above UNODC figures.[viii] Discrepancies seem to arise due to the use of different methodologies to count and monitor crops.

UNODC’s analysis of the 2007-2008 period concluded 15% of the area planted with coca replaced primary forest, 25% was “stable” –crops were identified at the beginning of the period and were still cultivated when the observation period ended- and 60% replaced other types of vegetation or bare soil, some of which, in previous years, had been planted with coca and then abandoned.[ix]

But why are rainforests logged and burned to plant coca in the first place? Growers attempt to elude governmental action by camouflaging crops in heavily forested surroundings, and since rainforests are located in remote and almost impenetrable areas of the country, plantations are easier to disguise. Coca also happens to grow well on wet lowlands, and so rainforests seem to be an ideal environment for cultivation. Also, as figures show, coca-driven deforestation is dynamic. First, primary forests are destroyed to establish the initial crop; then, the extensive use of chemicals during cultivation coupled with the traditionally low soil nutrients in tropical rainforests prevent the re-growth of vegetation. Additionally, actions aimed at fighting illicit crops, such as aerial spraying and manual eradication, displace coca crops; an area can seldom be replanted and new forest has to be cleared.[x]

The estimates are shocking: at least 12 thousand hectares of primary forest were deforested in 2008 for coca production[xi], accounting for 25% of the average yearly deforestation in the country. These calculations assume the number of hectares deforested equal the number of hectares planted. Nevertheless, the picture could be even grimmer since, according to the Antinarcotics Office of the Colombian Police and UNODC, from two to three hectares of forest need to be cleared to establish one productive hectare of coca.[xii] Assuming – for sake of argument- deforestation releases all the CO2 sequestered in above and below-ground biomass, carbon emissions in 2008 as a byproduct of coca bush cultivation amounted to more than two million tons[xiii], which is equivalent to the yearly per capita emissions of almost 300 thousand Spanish, 250 thousand British, 120 thousand Americans or 1.3 million Colombians.[xiv]

One of the guiding themes of the UNFCCC is the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. The war on drugs has traditionally been focused on the supply side. Colombia and other producing countries have been forced to adopt measures to eradicate illicit crops and fight drug trafficking, an approach that has exerted a high financial and human toll and produced little results.[xv] Recent studies indicate deforestation is trade-driven, i.e. correlated to demand for a commodity rather than to rural poverty.[xvi] A comprehensive strategy to tackle deforestation due to coca bush cultivation should address both.  It is time for developed countries to share the burden and focus on curbing consumption while helping Colombia offer meaningful alternatives to coca bush growers. From a climate change perspective, traditional means of coca eradication such as aerial spraying and manual eradication simply do not address the problem. Efforts should be focused on preventing deforestation in the first place – by tackling consumption- and preserving the Amazon tropical rainforest, one of the world’s more precious carbon reservoirs and sinks. Coca cultivation is no longer Colombia’s problem but the world’s, because as some get high, the world gets hot.

*Elisa Botero, a graduate of Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota, Colombia, is a candidate for an LL.M. degree at Columbia Law School.

[i] See Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes – Subdirección Estratégica y de Investigaciones, Impacto Ambiental Ocasionado por las Sustancias Químicas, los

Cultivos Ilícitos y las Actividades Conexas, (follow “Descargue aquí el documento completo en formato.pdf” hyperlink) (last visited Mar. 24, 2010); Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes – Subdirección de Asuntos Regionales y Erradicación (2004), (follow “cultivosIlicitosColombia.pdf ” hyperlink) (last visited Mar. 24, 2010)

[ii] There are 110 tons/ha in living biomass, 9.2 tons/ha in dead wood, 4.2 tons/ha in carbon litter, and 71.1 tons/ha in soil.  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005, at 34 (2006), (last visited Mar. 24, 2010); see International Panel on Climate Change, Land Change, Land-Use and Forestry (Robert T. Watson et al. eds.,  Cambridge University Press (2000)  (detailed sequestered carbon stock per forest type), available at (last visited Mar. 24, 2010); Contra Heather Keith, Re-evaluation of Forest Biomass Carbon Stocks and

Lessons from the World’s most Carbon-Dense Forests, Proceedings of the Nat’l Acad. of Sciences of the U.S., 11635 (2009), available at (last visited Mar. 24, 2010)

[iii] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, The Fourth Assessment Report Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report (Rajendra K. Pachauri eds.) (2007); see (last visited Mar. 24, 2010)

[iv] Reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) has been recognized as a fundamental component of climate change mitigation.

[v] FAO, supra note 2, at 195

[vi] Id. at 201

[vii] United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Colombia Coca Survey2008, at 3 (2009), (last visited Mar. 24, 2010)

[viii] Press Release, Embassy of the U.S – Bogota, Official U.S. Colombia Survey Shows Sharp Drop in Coca Cultivation and Cocaine Production (Nov. 6, 2009), (last visited Mar. 24, 2010)

[ix] UNODC, supra note 7, at 10-11

[x] See also, UN reports 27% rise in Colombian coca cultivation, N.Y. Times (briefly explaining some of the strategies growers have devised to protect crops from aerial spraying), available at (last visited Mar. 24, 2010)

[xi] 15% of 81 thousand.

[xii] See (last visited Mar. 24, 2010); Sandro Calvani, UNODC, Representative in Colombia, Keynote Address at the Universidad de Magdalena (Aug. 13, 2004), available at (last visited Mar. 24, 2010)

[xiii] Since deforestation is dynamic and secondary deforestation is virtually impossible, not only is the current stock released but the potential for future sequestration destroyed.

[xiv] The U.S, the U.K and Spain top the list of countries in terms of prevalence of cocaine use and are also some of the largest markets. UNODC, World Drug Report 2009, at 240, available at (last visited Mar. 24, 2010); (choose “CO2 emissions” in the indicator box) (last visited Mar. 24, 2010)

[xv] Fernando H.  Cardoso, Editorial, The War of Drugs is a Failure, Wall St. J., Feb. 23, 2009, available at

[xvi] Ruth S. DeFries, Deforestation driven by urban population growth and agricultural trade in the twenty-first century, Nature Geoscience, March 2010.


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